The telomere gestational clock: increasing short telomeres at term in the mouse

Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2019 May;220(5):496.e1-496.e8. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2019.01.218. Epub 2019 Jan 25.


Background: The biologic mechanism(s) regulating the length of gestation are currently poorly understood. After peaking at the blastocyst stage, the average telomere lengths have been reported to shorten during the remainder of gestation in the placenta and fetal membranes in both human and mouse pregnancies, thereby providing a potential countdown biologic clock. These previous studies have reported changes in the average telomere lengths, whereas it has now been shown that the shortest telomeres, not the average telomere lengths, are the mediators of telomere dysfunction which limits cellular survival and results in aging.

Objective: These studies sought to assess for the first time a significant increase in short telomeres in the fetal membrane and placental tissue near the end of pregnancy in the mouse.

Study design: Placental and fetal membrane tissues were harvested from timed-pregnant CD-1 mice on gestational days 14-18 prior to the onset of parturition. Telomere lengths were determined for 30 DNA samples (5 each for gestational days 14, 16, and 18 from placentas and fetal membranes) using a commercial high-throughput quantitative fluorescence in situ hybridization technique. Quantitative measurements of representative short telomeres (ie, 3 kb and 5 kb telomere fragments) were performed for 29-30 DNA samples (4-7 each for gestational days 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18 from placentas, fetal membranes, and maternal liver) using a real-time quantitative polymerase chain reaction modification of the classic telomere restriction fragment technique.

Results: The median telomere lengths of fetal membrane tissue decreased from gestational days 14-18 (18,705-16,364 kb) and were significantly shorter than telomeres in placental tissue (P < .05). Representative histograms for the distribution of telomere lengths in mouse fetal membranes (as shown in the Figure) confirm a curve skewed to the left (toward shorter telomere lengths).The relative quantity of the representative short telomeres (ie, 3 kb and 5 kb fragments) increased significantly as gestation progressed in both placenta and fetal membrane tissue. In gestational day 18 fetal membranes, the relative quantity of 3 kb and 5 kb telomeres increased 5.5-fold and 9.3-fold compared with gestational day 14 tissues (P < .05). In placental tissue the relative quantity of 3 kb and 5 kb telomeres increased 9.3-fold and 7.8-fold compared with gestational day 14 tissues (P < .05). Studies performed using adult liver tissue demonstrated little variation of the representative short telomeres and no significant difference between the nonpregnant and pregnant samples.

Conclusion: These mouse studies have demonstrated that the distribution of telomere lengths in fetal membrane and placental tissues are skewed toward shorter lengths and that the quantity of representative short telomeres increase significantly prior to parturition. The telomere gestational clock is a novel hypothesis supported by several preliminary mouse studies and interesting associations in human pregnancies between maternal conditions and telomere lengths. (eg, stress, education, pollution, neighborhood quality, and race). As such, the current hypothesis generating study provides a foundation for future research regarding the potential role for a telomere-based biologic clock that determines gestational length in human and other mammalian pregnancies.

Keywords: biologic clock; duration of pregnancy; inflammation; parturition (labor); placental aging; pregnant CD-1 mouse; telomerase.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Extraembryonic Membranes / pathology*
  • Female
  • Gestational Age*
  • In Situ Hybridization, Fluorescence
  • Mice
  • Placenta / pathology*
  • Pregnancy
  • Telomere Shortening*